Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has an eclectic, interesting directorial CV – the deconstructing remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the upbeat teen weepie Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and now this very cleverly-titled account of the shenanigans attendant upon the establishment of electric power in the US. The inventor-entrepreneur-celebrity Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) got behind Direct Current, which required the building of generators every mile or so, while the inventor-businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) put his money and enterprise on Alternating Current, which was cheaper and had a greater reach … as the world, and the audience, knows, Westinghouse won in the end, but few will remember his name, whereas Edison remains a famous, controversial figure. Also in the mix is Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), far closer to a visionary madman than either of his employers (he worked for both) and currently (ahem) probably a cooler name to drop. At one low point, Tesla is edged out of his own business and told ‘nothing will ever be named Tesla again’ – one of several throwaways that resonate across the years.
Scripted by Michael Mitnick, who did that YA dystopia The Giver, the film braids in biographical issues – the failing health of Edison’s sweet wife (Tuppence Middleton), the only person who keeps him grounded (also, ahem), the tenacious support of Westinghouse’s tougher partner (Katherine Waterston), the financial dealings of Edison’s backer J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) – but is much more focused on the esoteric minutiae of the feud. Wedded to a system that manifestly had more drawbacks, Edison used his own fame – he was a great self-publicist, who has to be reminded ‘you didn’t invent the incandescent bulb, people just think you did’ – to get media space (then measured in column inches) for his scaremongering about the supposed dangers of AC, which ran to stunts like killing a horse with voltage and attempting to turn ‘westinghouse’ into a synonym for ‘electrocution’. This backfired slightly, in that the demonstration inspired supposed reformers to investigate the potential of the electric chair as a humane alternative to hanging … with Edison covertly advising in the construction of the first device in the hope of yoking Westinghouse’s name to the lethal contraption in the public mind.
In an era of fake news and the big lie, it’s cannily addressed that the intent of this campaign was not just to put about the story that AC was dangerous – boosted by the lab accident death of Westinghouse’s chief engineer – but to imply that DC was safe … it takes a tiny slip before a hearing committee for Edison’s sidekick Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), whom he describes as ‘me, but human’, to reveal that all electricity above a certain voltage is lethal, and that all the wise old heads who’ve had Edison’s propaganda dripped into them just didn’t realise that. The sort of prestige project that character stars who’ve been earning packets in superhero movies take on to flex acting muscles, this is studded with good performances … and, in a mirror of the conflict of the film, Shannon’s earnest, moral, thoughtful, slightly plodding Westinghouse winds up dominating Cumberbatch’s showier, mercurial, shifty genius. We see Edison’s humanity at home, but there’s a contrast in his treatment of Tesla, more rival than employee, and his respectful protégé Insull that shows his reptilian side, and many of his legal or fringe-legal manoeuvres are almost comically sinister. We have wonky bayonet cap electric lights to this day because Edison got a patent on screw-in bulbs – later, when he was being equally tenacious in trying to dominate the nascent moving picture business, he patented sprocket holes.
The look is what we now take as standard for serious historical dramas – rather drab, with a lot of CGI, when perhaps a more impressionist approach would be helpful in what is after all the story of the triumph of light. As it stands, Edison’s initial stunt – a field of incandescents – is a stronger opener than Westinghouse’s electrification of the Chicago World’s Fair at the climax, which recreates historical images. It’s a commonplace problem of historical clash stories that often antagonists either never met or barely encountered each other – think of this as the Mary, Queen of Scots problem – so a Heat-type scene has to be contrived, which comes late and awkward here as Westinghouse and Edison try to be polite and also talk about the things they have in common in a chat at the opening of the fair.